I love libraries even more than I love museums. And I really love museums (see NT#48).
The moment I approach the Sheffield Central Library, it’s obvious. The original, art deco handrails are gone. Now, instead, there’s a sign: “Please be careful on the stairs. No handrails due to theft.”
Inside the main entrance to my favourite building in the city, I’m greeted by a quote painted on the wall that I used to interpret as a gentle reminder, but which now reads as an ominous warning: “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” – Ray Bradbury
The building itself is imploring me to visit more often. I make a promise to do so as I head left to the reference room and request a library consultation form.
I wish this article could end here. That I could just say:
If you want to participate in the library consultation between now and 8th October, you can pick up a paper form at any library or First Point location, request alternative formats by ringing 0114 2734567, or you can take it online at sheffield.gov.uk/ libraryreview.
But then I open the form. It says: “The Government requires the Council to make significant savings and this will continue for some years. Some of these savings will have to come from our library services.”
Now, the Sheffield library service costs around £6 million a year to run for a population of just over half a million, so the council is spending just under a quid a month per person on this. That sounds reasonable – even verging on cheap.
Ending corporate tax avoidance and accounting for the money in offshore havens would sort out municipal spending immediately. The IMF has recently suggested the UK government’s austerity measures are hindering financial growth, and a number of financial experts have actually recommended public sector investment to improve the economy and decrease unemployment. Rather than a consultation, it feels more like a consolation prize for living under the coalition government.
I nearly hand the form back, but then a library spokesperson tells me that nothing’s a done deal, and that they genuinely want our opinions whether we go every week or don’t even have a library card. So I read the form again. I notice a lot of big blank spaces for people to make extensive comments, and plan to use them. I read on a bit more happily until I get to section six, which asks ‘What do you want to protect the most?’
These are the options:
The range of services and materials
Library opening hours
The number of local libraries
The Council running library services (rather than social enterprises, charitable trusts or community groups running them)
What do I want to protect? Well first of all, library staff are people, so that immediately becomes ‘Whom do I want to protect’. And that makes the answer obvious; I want to protect the staff. I want their expertise and their jobs to allow the other things to happen. Of course I don’t want the council to give the libraries away to other people to run, or have opening hours and resources reduced. But I really want to protect the staff.
I speak to a few of the librarians and one tells me she can only scan materials for the online archive when the library is closed, because there are already too few staff for her to do that while working at the desk and helping visitors. She points out that the library is open 24/7 online, but I’m not buying it. Surely the library opening hours are as important as online availability? It’s a free public space.
Section seven asks about renting out this free public space to commercial organisations, and the form ends with a question about extending the use of volunteers.
That jogs my memory and I get in touch with a friend who was a library assistant in another Yorkshire town where a lot of the above changes have already been made. She left her job after she went from feeling dissatisfied to disenfranchised.
“Fewer staff meant adopting ‘new ways of working’, based on an outdated bookshop model,” she told me. “My role used to be much more creative and stimulating than merely prowling the shelves and showing people how to use the self-service machines. Because of the cuts, we were no longer allowed to run children’s activities, and related crafts, displays, and workshops were abandoned. There just wasn’t time with a skeleton staff, so most of the regular kids who used to come in just didn’t bother.
“Library assistants and volunteers were increasingly doing roles that used to be reserved for qualified librarians. If the alternative is no library, I’m sure people would settle for a disorganised and inefficient library.”
We shouldn’t have to settle. We are worth so much more. There is exponential value in free access to expert advice and knowledge. We know this. We need to do something about it. Unfortunately, we can’t exactly chain ourselves to the railings, so I guess we’d better fill in the consultation document.